- Speaker Jim Wright: Power, Scandal, and the Birth of Modern Politics by J. Brooks Flippen
J. Brooks Flippen's definitive biography of James Claude "Jim" Wright Jr., the Texas Democratic congressman who served as Speaker of the House in the late 1980s before he was toppled by Newt Gingrich, offers a detailed, thoroughly researched account of a lost political species: the moderate southern Democrat. For three decades, Wright, an admirer of both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, served as a bridge between his conservative, increasingly Republican constituents in Fort Worth, Texas, and the national Democratic Party, whose liberal principles of equality and commitment to social welfare Wright continued to champion even after conservative "Boll Weevil" Democrats converted to the party of Ronald Reagan (p. 104). Flippen's book, which is based on extensive archival research and interviews with many of Wright's associates (and with Wright himself before his death in 2015), sheds important light not only on Wright's own achievements but also on the era of centrist liberalism of which Wright and other moderate southern Democrats were a part.
Although Wright began his political career in the 1940s with a reputation as a progressive, he quickly learned to moderate his inclinations toward large government social programs and racial integration when they conflicted with the conservative leanings of his constituents. For thirty years, from the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower to that of Reagan, Wright practiced the politics of compromise, using his growing influence in Congress to pass centrist legislation on health care, civil rights, and the environment. His skill at channeling federal money to his district while simultaneously calling for fiscal responsibility warded off conservative challengers at home, and his ability to shepherd Great Society legislation through Congress (albeit at times in watered-down form) pacified northern liberals in his congressional caucus. His record on civil rights was mixed, reflecting the conflict between his liberal inclinations and conservative constituency. He voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and in general, he supported moderate civil rights legislation, but only after it had been weakened by conservative amendments. On the environment, he was more progressive, but still not [End Page 508] sufficiently opposed to Texas oil interests to earn the support of national environmental activists. By the 1970s, Wright's cultural conservatism was out of step with the liberal wing of his party. He supported the Vietnam War long after it had become unpopular with progressives and took moderately conservative stances on abortion and school prayer. In the 1980s, when Wright had reached the top echelons of congressional Democratic leadership, some liberal Democrats in Congress treated him as an opponent and tried unsuccessfully to block him from becoming Speaker of the House.
But if Wright found the Democratic Party's cultural move to the left discomforting, he considered the rightward shift of the Republican Party under Reagan far more objectionable. As Speaker, Wright tried—often unsuccessfully—to block Reagan's cuts to social programs and to counter Reagan's defense spending increases with tax hikes. Even as the parties shifted around him, Wright remained a southern liberal in the mold of the early 1960s: a man who believed in expanded government programs and a strong social safety net coupled with balanced budgets, moderate social conservatism, and a strong defense.
At the end of the 1980s, Wright saw this dream collapse. After giving his life to congressional service—and sacrificing his first marriage, his extracurricular activities, and, to a certain extent, his health for the sake of his political career—he had to leave Congress in disgrace because of allegations of financial improprieties that he believed were unfair and politically motivated. Worse, the politics of moderation, civility, and consensus that Wright had pursued for decades disappeared, as did the centrist southern wing of the Democratic Party. Since 1997, Wright's Fort Worth district has been represented in...